But I Don’t Like Cloudy Weather

Google Heaven and go to Images.  What do you see?  A lot of clouds.  Is Heaven a shiny city on clouds?  If so, that isn’t very exciting.  The description of Heaven as cloudy is a misunderstanding of the Biblical text.  The Bible speaks of Jesus coming on the “clouds of heaven”.  This is a reference to our atmosphere and that Jesus will return to Earth from above.  Heaven, the throne room of God, does not have a cloudy floor like a bad heavy metal concert.

Physical descriptions of Heaven are very few.  You have from Revelation 4:  “Before the throne seven lamps were blazing.  These are the seven spirits of God.  Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.”  This “sea” may correlate with what the Elders of Israel saw when they went to meet God.  From Exodus 24:9f, “Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel.  Under his feet was something like pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself.”

The point is don’t get mislead by cultural representations of Heaven that feature mostly clouds.  If you want some picture focus in on the word, “paradise”.

What meaning is loaded into this term? The term is only used two other times in the Bible. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul talks about his vision of heaven by saying that he was caught up into paradise—clearly a reference to Heaven. Revelation 2:7 speaks of the tree of life as being in the paradise of God. In this case it may be referring to the New Earth, but why not also Heaven?

The word itself comes from the Persian language and refers to a pleasure garden. That is why it is often used outside of the Bible to refer to the Garden of Eden. The few descriptions we have of Heaven are devoid of plants and geographical features. Because of this we are prone to fill in the blanks with clouds. If you have a drab and unexciting mental image of Heaven, then you have overlooked the word “paradise”. Keep in mind the Biblical descriptions of Heaven only give a cursory description of God’s throne room. They do not suggest that Heaven is only God’s throne room, nor do they do justice to the glory of this throne room. Some things words will just fail to adequately describe.

 

The Throne Room of God

I would like start this section with a passage about Heaven that is frequently overlooked. It is John 3:13:

No one has ascended into Heaven except he who descended from Heaven, the Son of Man.

This is a “wow” statement when you think about it. Jesus is unequivocally saying that nobody has been to Heaven to that point. That means that the two Old Testament visions of Heaven that seem like the person travels to Heaven (Isa. 6, Dan. 7) were just that—visions. They were not field trips. Even though the Bible says that a fiery chariot took Elijah into Heaven. It does not mean that Elijah went to the throne room of God, it just means that the chariot took him up. The word “heavens” can be used to refer to outer space, so it is important to watch your context. This verse also means all those Old Testament people who have been considered “righteous” still had not yet received their righteousness from Christ and gone to Heaven. The punishment for their sins had only been suspended for the time being (see Romans 3:25b). They awaited Christ’s victory in a pleasant portion of Sheol.

Why hadn’t anybody ascended to Heaven up to the time Jesus made that statement? We are sinners and do not deserve to be there. Perhaps we could not even survive being there in our condition. Only atonement for sin can change that situation and when this was spoken Jesus had still not atoned for the sins of the world.

This raises an interesting question about Isaiah’s experience. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah experiences a vision of Heaven and he also experiences his unworthiness. He says, “Woe to me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of people with unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of (hosts.)” I’m sure Isaiah doesn’t know what exactly has happened to him. He doesn’t know if he is actually in Heaven or still in the temple and seeing Heaven. We would call it an out-of-body experience, but it would appear from Jesus’ statement above that he wasn’t as “out-of-body” as he perhaps felt.

Isaiah saw the throne room of God, but only as a vision. Even though only a vision, Isaiah was struck by his unworthiness to be there. “Woe to me” he said, “For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among people of unclean lips.” Heaven isn’t heavenly for those who are unworthy to be there. The holiness of God is stressful for Isaiah in a vision, and possibly lethal for him in person. Still, God gave Isaiah this vision for a purpose. God had a mission to give him and the means to carry it out.

In his vision, Isaiah sees several bizarre creatures in the throne room of God. He calls them, “burning ones”, or Seraphim. The seraphim respond to Isaiah’s unworthiness in this way:

Then one of seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

I have always found this fascinating. Why didn’t Isaiah get burned? Why do coals on the altar atone for him? There is no answer given, so we can’t conclusively say. Perhaps the reason is that Isaiah wasn’t really there, so no burn. The altar that this refers to is the one copied in the Jerusalem temple where sacrifices were made. The Bible is clear that animal sacrifices do not really atone for sin at all. However, they were prophetic, as Isaiah’s experience was prophetic, of a sacrifice that will really atone; and that sacrifice was Jesus.

With the sacrifice of Christ completed, can mankind enter into Heaven and into the presence of God? It would appear so. The first invitation happens on the cross. Jesus says to the repentant thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Some have interpreted Jesus’ words as saying that the thief will join Jesus in the good neighborhood of Sheol. The reasoning is simple, that is where Jesus is going next and we are not aware of a trip to Heaven until His ascension. But Jesus didn’t exactly leave us His travel itinerary. I would add to the evidence for Jesus going to Heaven on that day, Ephesians 4:8:

When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.

I don’t think the ascension referenced here is the one the disciples observed for two reasons. First, Jesus is leading the Old Testament redeemed, here referred to as “captives”, somewhere, presumably Heaven. Next, the gifts referred to is the forgiveness of sins, which would have begun immediately after Jesus had finished His task of atonement. As such, Jesus could have gone to Heaven the very day He was crucified.

Next time:  More from the throne room of God

Heaven Is My Home, or Is It?

Another common misconception about eternal life is that Heaven is our final destination. Most people believe the Bible says that if you are saved you go to Heaven forever, and if you are damned you go to Hell forever, but the Bible is very clear on this subject, a New Earth is our ultimate goal. Heaven is an intermediary destination.

Here are some relevant passages on the topic:

2 Peter 3:13

But according to His promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

Revelation 21:1-4

21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

The idea of being in Heaven forever didn’t come from the Bible. It first seeped into Christian thinking from Greek pagan religion. The Greeks believed that this world and our bodies were evil and the goal was to be released from our bodies. Similar ideas can be found in Hinduism and Buddhism. You can understand from where such thinking came. Our bodies and this world are not as God had created them. We get sick and die. We have all sorts of natural inclinations toward evil. This is because we have been altered by sin and live under the curse of God. It is not because the material universe is inherently corrupt or undesirable, but it can sure seem like it at times. In fact, God’s goal is to restore it original glory rather than abandon His creation.

In more recent times, Enlightenment era theologians had a tendency to conflate scripture that referred to Heaven with those that spoke of the New Earth. As a result, there are many beloved hymns from that era that speak of Heaven as our permanent home. Finding the words “the new Earth” in a hymn is rather unusual. Why this is so probably has something to do with the idea of the resurrection of the dead. Reanimating long-decayed remains seems like a physical impossibility. True people of science would never believe this to be literal. A heavenly goal is not challengeable by the laws of nature, so it seems more believable; but the laws of nature don’t restrict God.

Seminary and Sunday School also can shoulder some of the blame for our not hearing about the New Earth. In systematic theology classes that are jammed packed with topic matter, our eternal destiny tends to be left to the end of the line and was probably not always covered. If pastors were not thorough in their studies of scripture, they could easily overlook or dismiss the temporary nature of both Heaven and Sheol. As noted earlier, Sheol is usually mistranslated in most Bibles, therefore many pastors may not understand it at all. Then there is the training most lay people have had. I’ll admit the true plan of God for eternity is a little complicated. Try explaining it to Sunday School kids or, for that matter, Sunday School teachers. How much easier is it to present the “Heaven forever” model.

The Heaven Forever model does create some dissonance with the “resurrection of the body” that is proclaimed, often weekly, in the Creeds. That is one reason we have the ancient creeds. It is so we don’t lose important parts of the truth to false oversimplifications. If we are in Heaven, why would we need our earthly bodies resurrected? Of course, the answer is because we’re not in Heaven forever, still people readily ignore this contradiction.

Heaven is the destination of the redeemed between death and Judgment Day.  What we will experience in Heaven is not well explained in Scripture, but there are several descriptions of God’s throne room which are quite detailed.  They will be the topic matter for the next few publications.

Is Sheol My Destiny?

We have talked about the fact that the Old Testament people did not speak about going to Heaven or Hell exactly, they spoke about going to Sheol.  Sheol was a place for the righteous (like Jacob) and the unrighteous (like Korah).  Scripture that we will cover later reveals that Sheol is a place with two parts separated by a chasm or void.  The one part was relatively pleasant, the other a hellish place of torment.  Before completing what the Bible has to say about Sheol/Hades, I want to address a common question I have heard since teaching about this topic.

Do we go to Sheol?  It is important to note that Jesus’ victory on the cross made a tremendous difference in mankind’s after death destiny.  Jesus stated in John 3:13 that no one had gone to Heaven up to that point.  That would change with Jesus’ victory on the cross.

Ultimately, after Judgment Day, the Bible says that humans will be part of a New Earth or what I would call “Hell” (the Bible uses the terms “lake of fire” or “Gehenna”).  Until Judgment Day, when we die we are either sent to Heaven or the bad neighborhood of Sheol.  This is what theologians call the “Intermediate Period” (The time after our death but before Judgment Day).  Both destinations change with Judgment Day.  The idea that we “sleep” until Judgment Day or that we defy time and immediately move to Judgment Day does not work with Revelation 6:9-10.

I found the picture above on the internet.  It does a decent job of illustrating what I am talking about. (I have a few issues with it.  What it calls Hell present is what the Bible calls Sheol or Hades.   The chasm it shows is not between Heaven and Sheol but rather is a part of Sheol)  So, back to the original question.  If you are connected to Jesus through faith and baptism, then you will not go to Sheol.  But it is good to realize that Sheol is something different than what we normally think of when we say Hell.

Next time:  What Job says about Sheol

A Word You May Not Know: Sheol

As a pastor and a Christian, I have quietly dreamt of going on a field trip to see what lies beyond death. Just think about how life changing it would be. We speak of Heaven and Hell, but we don’t usually see them before we go there. As a result they seem surreal to us at best. Some people in history have seen parts of life beyond the grave via out of body experiences. They all are profoundly affected. While my hope in Christ is to someday be with Christ in Heaven and eventually experience the resurrection of my body and live with God in a New Earth, I think I would like to see even more. While disturbing, I think I would even like to briefly see the fate of the damned. I might change my mind on that if ever given the opportunity.

Normally, we don’t get to see beyond the pall of death. Yet, I can think of no topic more important to each of us. We don’t want any rude surprises when we leave this world. We want to know what will happen, and to some extent we can know.

What I would like to do with you in this series of articles is to take a field trip of sorts. We are going to see what scripture shares about all aspects of life after death. We will give Near Death Experiences (NDE) of both heaven and its counterpart a little consideration.   For me, they don’t hold the weight of inspired scripture as a source of information. There are factors that could make a Near Death Experience imagined or even a deception, but they still need to be addressed. That is why we will be primarily discussing scripture. Using scripture, we will go on a verbal field trip, doing our best to imagine what is described. It will be interesting, but hopefully it will also be life-changing. This information was not given by God to be simply FYI.

 

First Stop: Sheol

 

Lets start at the bottom. The first life-after-death destiny mentioned in the Bible is Sheol. Sheol is the counterpart to heaven. You mean you never heard of Sheol? I wouldn’t blame you if that were true. Apparently my spell-checker hasn’t either. Sheol is a Hebrew word that is often translated away. In English, it is often translated as “the grave” or “hell” or “the pit”. I would contend that these translations are usually wrong or at least confusing. Sheol is a not the hole where we put dead bodies, nor is it a vague concept of where dead people go, nor is it what most of us think of when we hear the word, “hell”.  Sheol is a place. A place with somewhat complicated properties.

Now the conventional wisdom about the translation of the word “Sheol” is that the meaning depends on the context. When you see how it gets used in the original Hebrew, it is easy to understand why this is thought. Sometimes the word gets turned into a compound word. In this case, it expresses a closely related subject, like decay. More often, though, the appearance of slightly different meanings in various contexts is probably created by the individual’s confusion over what Sheol is like.

Confused individual ideas about Sheol need not create confusion for us, because Jesus really did clear up the nature of Sheol, as we shall see. When it comes to the nature of life after death, Jesus is the ultimate authority.

Next Time:  Sheol gets connected with the Greek word/idea:  Hades

Who Do You Trust?

Do you think about life after death? I expect that most of us ignore the topic until it is forced into our attention by the death of somebody or a close call for ourselves. Maybe, we feel like not much can be known, or that the topic is too discouraging.

I disagree with the avoidance of the topic of death. Death is the biggest and most certain event in our lives. We should research what can be known. We should know it well. I have spent some time researching what the Bible says about several topics related to existence after death, and I think it is fascinating and extremely relevant. Knowing what is said changes your life. I am almost certain that you will learn a great deal by reading this series of articles. There is more to know than you think.

Unlike topics such as gardening, sports and health, information about our eternal destiny is not subject to our senses or experimentation. People occasionally do have out-of-body experiences where they see heaven or hell or something like it, and we will consider those; but no other topic is as dependent on revelation as this one. This is a big problem for many people. They don’t see any reason to trust religious revelation.

Most religious revelation comes with little to no corroborating evidence. For that reason, I would dismiss it as well. Jesus, however, is a different story. Jesus can be established as a real person in history by existing ancient texts both favorable and hostile to Him that date to within a few decades of his life. His words and deeds are recorded by those who were eyewitnesses, some of whom who were once hostile converts. His life was not just an ordinary life, especially as it relates to death. Jesus raised the dead and rose Himself from the dead. Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, and both prophecies about Him and miracles done by Him support that claim. Jesus gives us that connection with history that backs up what He has to say about life after death.

It is with great seriousness that I will try to set forth what Jesus and those He endorsed said about our existence after death. Some of it is not going to be what we want to hear. Some of it will not seem rational. You need to remember that God’s ways are not our ways. What happens after death is such a serious topic, I want to know what is said regardless of whether it meets my approval. Therefore, I think it is important to cover the whole scope of what is written about life after death, both good and bad.

Please accept my invitation to look beyond the grave. You will find the following entries to be enlightening, serious, hopeful and motivating. We will all die. That much is sure. What comes next will be either the best or the worst part of our existence, and it is what Jesus has done and our connection to Him that will make the difference.

 

Next Article: We will begin to consider a biblical word that most people don’t recognize or understand—Sheol